Decline and Fall
Let me start by confessing that I've never read the entire million and a half word unabridged version nor even if I had a copy would I read the thousands of footnotes even if they include salacious stories about the Empress Theodora and geese. I've been thinking a lot lately about the 15th and 16th chapters of Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. link to Gibbon page Gibbon had two general themes in volume 1. First, Rome fell due to moral decline. Citizens of Rome, never the entire population of the Empire, lost the will to pay the price necessary to keep their empire. For example, they sent barbarian mercenaries to fight in their wars rather than their own sons. Second, Christians refused to compromise or tolerate the presence of other beliefs in the Empire and were ruthless about making sure they got their way. As a result they had little to no time for traditional civilities or concerns about fairness. Gibbon also argued that the early Christians were more interested in securing their place in the "afterlife" than in the need to ensure the quality of what most of us think of as the here and now.
Most of what I know about Roman history, I learned from the movie Gladiator and three years of high school Latin. As in "Quo usque tandem abutere, Catalina, nostra patientia"-"Gallia est divisa in tres partis"- and some business about Rosy-fingered dawn talking to Aeneas. I'm really not the one to say whether Gibbon's analysis of Rome is credible. Despite the issues raised by his Western-European centric take on both the Byzantine side of Rome and his misunderstandings about Sung China, Gibbon's actual scholarship appears to have held up surprisingly well. Even the Catholic Church, which put the book on the banned list for 100 plus years, didn't necessarily challenge much of Gibbon's analysis of early church history. I am, however, comfortable suggesting that Gibbon has a lot to say about contemporary America. If only to remember a time in the west when the Church was bigger than the state, kings relied on God and church as a source of legitimacy, and where scripture had greater credence than "science". In modern America, that vision is alive and well in places like Colorado Springs which some call the Evangelical capital of America. It was the Puritans, after all, who came to America with their vision for the City on the Hill. Historians had a now politically incorrect name for that period 1300 years agoo when this was essentially true in much of the west, they called it the "Dark Ages". I, for one, am not especially anxious to have my descendants relive those times.
Mmmmm....if Gibbon were alive today, what do you think his webpage would look like? Wonder if he'd have pop up ads with links to online casinos, etc. Sometimes I wish we could channel voices from the past to the internet, say through a metaphyscial search engine.